Wishlists, Gift Certificates, and Gift Giving in E-Commerce

by Jakob Nielsen on January 29, 2007

Summary: Although gift features leverage the online medium and draw new users to a site, they also introduce many usability pitfalls. Among them are poorly designed email notifications, which many users simply ignore.

Wishlists and gift certificates are the anti-pet-food of ecommerce. They don't require heavy shipping because they're a purely virtual phenomena. In fact, electronic wishlists and gift certificates are better than their physical-world equivalents because they can be transmitted instantaneously. Thus, e-certificates are the only gift that last-minute shoppers can buy and have delivered immediately — a fact you should promote prominently on your homepage for all major gift-giving holidays.

Even better, wishlists and gift certificates are the ultimate in viral marketing because they are highly targeted and the recipient is highly motivated to use them. When you get a gift certificate to an e-commerce site, you're going visit it and shop there (and, quite often, you're going to spend more than the certificate's value). And, when your favorite niece tells you that her wishlist is on a certain e-commerce site, you're quite likely to go there and solve the mystery of what 13-year-old girls want.

If you're running a B2C site without wishlists and gift certificates, you're leaving millions on the table. Even if you have these features, you're almost certainly not using them to their full potential if your site is anything like those we tested.

(Note: I use the generic term "wishlist" here for any feature that lets users build a list of items that they'd like others to purchase for them. Wedding and baby-shower registries are common wishlists, as are birthday lists, but people create wishlists for many other occasions as well.)

User Research

To determine the guidelines for wishlist and gift certificate design, we employed two different user research methods:

  • Field studies. We went to various physical stores to observe couples as they added items to their wedding registries. Although websites shouldn't be mirror images of the real-world shopping experience, it's still a good starting point to see how people behave without the technological limitations and opportunities the Internet affords. We also observed individual customers as they shopped for gifts in physical stores.
  • User testing. We conducted the bulk of our research online, observing users as they performed tasks related to wishlists and gift certificates on 22 e-commerce sites. Participants performed four major tasks:
    • redeemed gift certificates,
    • purchased gift certificates,
    • created wishlists, and
    • made purchases from wishlists.
    Two additional tasks let us study the memorability of a wishlist's location, and the site's ability to let users notify other people about their wishlists. Not all sites were tested for both features.

A total of 35 users participated in the research: 6 in field studies and 29 in user testing. We tested the following e-commerce sites:


  • Amazon.com
  • Buy.com
  • CD Universe
  • CooksCorner.com
  • Finishline
  • JCPenney
  • Nordstrom
  • REI
  • Target
  • Tower Records
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Wal-Mart

Gift Certificates

  • Amazon.com
  • Barnes & Noble
  • CD Universe
  • Cooking.com
  • Costco
  • Delias
  • Eddie Bauer
  • LL Bean
  • Macy's
  • Nordstrom
  • REI
  • Sharper Image
  • Sports Authority
  • Target
  • WickedCoolStuff

Usability Issues

From a marketing perspective, wishlists and gift certificates are wonderful because they introduce your site to new customers. Unfortunately, this exact advantage turns into a tremendous challenge for website usability.

First-time customers are also first-time users, and they won't know how to operate your site. They might not even know your brand. They arrive at your site because somebody else likes to shop there. The smallest glitch in the user experience can be fatal for these users. We frequently saw our gift-giving or gift-receiving users stumble because of classic problems that are well-documented in traditional e-commerce UX guidelines. So, the first recommendation for wishlists and gift certificates is simply to have great e-commerce usability.

Gift-related shopping often puts greater emphasis on established e-commerce guidelines or alters their interpretation. For example, it's always been a guideline to disclose shipping & handling, sales taxes, and any other charges before you ask users for personal information. When shopping with a gift certificate, this guideline is more important than ever because users might feel constrained by the certificate's monetary value. (While it's true that people often spend more than the certificate amount, they won't do this if they feel suckered by a site's bait-and-switch approach.)

Remember: you need to cater to a broader audience than your primary customers. Even if you're selling cutting-edge fashions for young people, a wishlist shopper might be a 68-year-old woman buying a gift for her grandson. Thus, to realize the wishlist feature's full benefits, your product pages and checkout process must be usable by first-time buyers outside your target audience.

Email as Gift-Giving Medium

For wishlists and gift certificates, achieving highly polished website usability is a must. Beyond that, however, both offerings are often communicated through email, which is a highly brittle medium. We've studied usability for both e-mail newsletters and confirmation messages and have found that the inbox is a harsh environment for commercial communications. Users often assume that legitimate messages are spam, and they also ignore other messages when they're pressed for time (which is often).

Sadly, our tests of gift-card notifications and wishlist messages repeated these findings. With e-certificates, 30% were summarily junked by our test participants, and a further 20% were not trusted to be what they claimed. Overall, half of the gift-certificate email suffered from disastrous usability. This is the worst outcome in any research study we've conducted since the end of the dot-com bubble in 2000. (In the 1990s, we recorded even worse user experience outcomes in some studies.)

These days, phishing attacks are so common that it's not sufficient to send people an email that simply announces, "We have $100 for you." You need to add several trust markers to the parts of the email that users see in their initial inbox view. You must pay careful attention to the design guidelines for: subject lines, the "from" field, and the information that might appear in the recipient's e-mail preview area.

Online Gifting: User Attitudes

We found plenty of pragmatic usability problems with wishlists and gift certificate features. For example, users often had trouble finding a specific recipient's wishlist. Even the smallest issue can trip up users, such as labeling a checkout form "certificate number" when the certificate code contains letters.

It definitely pays off to design these features with care and avoid the many usability problems we documented in our study. But the biggest challenge for the user experience might actually be customer attitudes.

We found that many people thought it was too selfish, greedy, or demanding to create a wishlist that explicitly stated what they'd like to receive from friends and family. At the same time, from the gift-giving side, people appreciated seeing wishlists. So, to encourage more wishlists, it's important to position them as a help to the giver rather than a demand by the recipient.

Also, participants often said they thought that giving a gift certificate was less thoughtful than purchasing an actual gift. Here again, we found an interesting duality: most of our study participants admitted that they personally liked to get gift cards.

Better Gift User Experience

The evidence from user research is clear: the current user experience for wishlists and gift certificates is not good enough. But usability — and thus sales — can be improved on most sites through fairly small design changes.

Wishlists and gift certificates leverage the strengths of the online medium, introduce new customers to your brand, and capture significant additional revenue streams. Given all these benefits, there should be an easy ROI argument for the changes required to establish a satisfactory user experience for such features.

(Note that our detailed report with Design Guidelines for Wishlists, Gift Certificates, and the Gift Giving UX has been updated based on newer research since this article was published. The main conclusions remain the same, however.)

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